SEC: Cody Mandell

Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

SEC's lunch links

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
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What a historic moment from former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. Hats off to one of the SEC's best players in 2013.

Reliving Auburn's miracle return

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
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AUBURN, Ala. -- For a team of destiny, the play that would come to define Auburn's magical season started off in an ironic way as it looked as if luck might not be on its side after all. The clock read all zeroes in Jordan-Hare Stadium as Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon went out of bounds, sending a tie game into overtime. But officials double-checked, reviewed the play and put one second back on the clock -- just enough time for the top-ranked Crimson Tide to run one final play.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' TD return was like something out of a video game, according to Tide QB AJ McCarron.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, staring his own date with destiny and a third straight national championship in the eye, didn't think to throw a Hail Mary pass. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the odds of AJ McCarron heaving a touchdown in that situation were 2 percent. Better to give Adam Griffith a shot at splitting the uprights from 57 yards out, Saban thought. He'd seen his freshman kicker hit it from 60 yards plenty of times, and Cade Foster, Alabama's regular place-kicker, had already missed three field goals.

Disgruntled, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thought to himself, "You know, we haven't had a whole lot of luck with reviews anyway," as Alabama took the field for its shot at a game-winning field goal. Malzahn toyed with telling his special-teams coach to go for the block, but he knew he wanted to call a timeout to ice the kicker and survey his options anyway. Better go a different route, he decided.

"If they missed the kick, what was the worst that could happen?" said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead.

"Put CD back there," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford recalled hearing Malzahn say during the timeout, pulling safety Ryan Smith off the return in favor of Chris Davis, a speedy cornerback and part-time punt returner. Malzahn called Davis, a senior who has gone through his fair share of ups and downs, "a champion" in his book. On Saturday night with the wind blowing in his face and a title hanging in the balance, Davis was.

Cody Mandell fielded the snap and dropped the ball into place for Griffith, who swung his right leg through cleanly. The ball floated on line for what seemed like an eternity to the orange-and-blue-clad fans standing in their seats. Then it dipped short and to the right, where Davis waited with open arms.

"I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run," Davis said.

Alabama simulated field goal returns like Davis' every Friday during the season. "We just imagine," said tight end Brian Vogler, who is responsible for sealing the outside edge of the line during kicks. But there's never anyone actually there to return the ball, he said.

"You practice it so many times and when it happens you're not expecting that kind of speed," Vogler explained.

Davis started to his right up the center of the field before turning back left toward the sideline. He knew if he got to the edge the bigger guys for Alabama wouldn't be able to catch him. Vogler, all 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds of him, took a bad angle, leaped at Davis, and missed.

"I was running down the field expecting a blindside [hit] out of nowhere," Vogler said, "and when I finally got the opportunity, I was kind of in shock I hadn't gotten laid out."

Adrian Hubbard, Alabama's 252-pound linebacker, didn't stand a chance either as he whiffed on the tackle.

Smith, in a stroke of irony, was a key part of the return as he laid out Alabama offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio.

"I made a good block," Smith said excitedly. "Y'all go check it out."

Mandell, the punter and holder, got one hand on Davis' jersey, but wound up only touching history rather than stopping it. Davis never broke stride as he passed Mandell and found daylight, running freely into the end zone for the game-winning score before being hugged to the turf by his own teammates as the stadium erupted in applause.

"When I looked back, I said I couldn't believe this," Davis said. "When I was running, I said, 'God is good.'"

It was like it happened in slow motion, McCarron said. His helmet on and his emotions hidden from view, he sprinted off toward the locker room as fans rushed the field.

"It's almost like a video game," McCarron said. "That's something you do on 'Madden.'"

"I was just shocked," said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. "I didn't think that big of a play would have been caused by that."

Said Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae: "I lost it. I ran and found myself on the other sideline and got to see some of my guys and hugged them. It was just an amazing experience, one that will last me for a lifetime."

The floodgates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium became a crazed sea of blue and orange fans celebrating what will go down as the most memorable Iron Bowl in history. An Auburn staffer would have to save Malzahn from being hit by Aubie, the Tigers' crowd-surfing mascot, during a postgame interview.

[+] EnlargeAuburn
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe game over, the field turned into one very large celebration.
"I don't think I've ever been part of a sequence like that with so much on the line in that part of the game," Malzahn said, not realizing he had won the Western Division until the moment he shook Saban's hand after the game.

Meanwhile, Davis was being suffocated at the bottom of a dog pile.

"It was hard to breathe," he said. "I knew it was coming. What else do you expect when you're doing something like that? I'm proud of my teammates. It might seem like I'm the hero in this moment, but they also are too -- offense and defense and special teams. We fought together and we got the W."

"If you weren't there," Ford said, "I can't really explain it to you."

It took at least an hour for players and fans to finally leave the field. The cleanup of their celebration would continue into Monday. Toomer's Corner remained painted white with rolls upon rolls of toilet paper prior to Malzahn's news conference that day at 11:30 a.m. In fact, most of the campus remained covered in the tissue.

When Davis went to his geology class that morning, he received a standing ovation. It was like a scene from a movie: the team that couldn't win a single conference game and fired its entire staff from the season before, suddenly beats the top-ranked team in the country and its star player goes to class to a round of applause.

Davis and his teammates better get used to it. This is their legacy now. No one who saw what happened that Saturday night in Jordan-Hare will ever forget.

SEC lunchtime links

November, 20, 2013
11/20/13
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Talking quarterbacks, BCS bowls, penalties, turnovers and even a punter in today's edition of the lunchtime links:
In the SEC, it's all about recruiting and player development. It's the big reason why the league has won seven straight BCS championships and produced more NFL players than any other conference. The two go hand-in-hand.

The Senior Bowl, which released its 2014 Watch List on Tuesday, further illustrated that fact, selecting nearly 20 percent (72) of its 400 candidates from the SEC. The ACC twas nearly lapped with 48 selections, followed by the Big 10 (46) and the Pac-12 (38).

And the team with the most players should come as no surprise as defending-champion Alabama had 10 make the list, including quarterback AJ McCarron and All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley. Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri tied for the second-most players taken from the SEC with six apiece.

Alabama: WR Kenny Bell, CB Deion Belue, CB John Fulton, P Cody Mandell, QB AJ McCarron, LB C.J. Mosley, WR Kevin Norwood, RG Anthony Steen, S Nick Perry.

Arkansas: WR Jevontee Herndon, DT Brian Jones, DE Chris Smith, C Travis Swanson, DT Robert Thomas.

Auburn: P Steven Clark, DC Chris Davis, DE Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford, FB Jay Prosch, DT Jeffrey Whitaker

Florida: WR Andre Debose, DE Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonatthan Harrison, WR Soloman Patton, DC Jaylen Watkins.

Georgia: OG Chris Burnett, OG Kernarious Gates, TE Arthur Lynch, QB Aaron Murray, OB Garrison Smith.

Kentucky: IB Avery Williamson

LSU: IB Lamin Barrow, RB Alfred Blue, FB JC Copeland, FS Craig Loston, QB Zach Mettenberger

Mississippi State: DE Denico Autry, OG Gabe Jackson, RB LeDarious Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, OB Deontae Skinner, FS Nickoe Whitley

Missouri: OT Justin Britt, QB James Franklin, DC EJ Gaines, WR Marcus Lucas, WR L'Damian Washington, IB Andrew Wilson

Ole Miss: PT Tyler Campbell, IB Mike Marry, DC Charles Sawyer, RB Jeff Scott, IB DT Shackleford

South Carolina: DC Jimmy Legree, QB Connor Shaw, DE Chaz Sutton

Tennessee: OT Ju'Wuan James, DT Daniel McCuller, RB Rajon Neal, DE Jacques Smith, C James Stone

Texas A&M: LB Steven Jenkins, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews

Vanderbilt: IB Chase Garnham, DC Andre Hal, OT Wesley Johnson, FS Kenny Ladler, WR Jordan Matthews
We've looked at how all 14 special teams units stack up in the SEC. Now, it's time to take a look at the top kickers and punters the conference has to offer.

We're going five and five, so we'll start with the kickers:

1. Carey Spear, Sr., Vanderbilt: He enjoyed arguably the best season of any Vandy kicker after he connected on 20-of-24 field goals and set the school record for field goals made and kick scoring. He was also perfect from within 43 yards. He had a long of 52 yards and was 7-of-11 from 40 yards and out.

2. Cody Parkey, Sr., Auburn: He didn't attempt a lot of kicks last year, but made 11-of-14 field goals and didn't miss from within 46 yards. He's also connected on 51 straight extra points. With what should be an improved offense, he should have more opportunities to show off his leg this fall.

3. Zach Hocker, Sr., Arkansas: Even though he only made 11-of-18 field goals last year, Hocker is currently the most successful kicker in the SEC. He is the SEC's active career leader in extra points made (143), total points (287) and points per game (7.6).

4. Andrew Baggett, So., Missouri: As a freshman, Baggett only missed two kicks under 40 yards and was an SEC All-Freshman Team member. He finished the year hitting 14-of-20 field goals, with a long of 46 yards, and 33-of-37 extra points.

5. Devon Bell, So., Mississippi State: Bell was a little inconsistent when it came to hitting from distance early, but finished the year nailing 14 of his last 18 field-goal attempts. He hit 43-of-44 extra points, but will need to make sure the momentum he ended last season with spills over to the fall.

On to the punters:

1. Kyle Christy, Jr., Florida: He was one of the nation's best last year and should be considered the top punter in the country entering the 2013 season. He had a long of 62 yards and booted 25 of his punts 50-plus yards. Twenty-seven of his punts landed inside opponents' 20-yard line and he ranked ninth nationally last year in net punting.

2. Landon Foster, So., Kentucky: He'll start the season as one of the nation's best after 42.9 yards per punt and blasting 22 kicks 50-plus yards last season. He had a net average of 39.5 and had 13 kicks downed inside the 20. Fourteen of his kicks resulted in fair catches.

3. Tyler Campbell, Sr., Ole Miss: He redshirted last year, but was one of the best in the country two years ago. In 2011, Campbell averaged 43.6 yards per kick and ranked second in the SEC with 28 kicks that were downed inside the 20. Campbell has averaged 44.6 yards per punt during his career.

4. Baker Swedenburg, Sr., Mississippi State: Sure, he only sent five of his punts 50-plus yards, but he was one of the most consistent punters in the SEC last year. He averaged 41.1 yards per punt and pinned 18 kicks inside the 20. Ten of those punts were downed inside the 10. With his hang time, Mississippi State led the nation in punt coverage (.46 yards per return).

5. Cody Mandell, Sr., Alabama: Yes, Alabama does have a punter -- and he was pretty good last year. He averaged 44.3 yards on 50 punts, pinning 19 inside the 20 and sending 14 50-plus yards. He also had a net of 39.5 yards.
We conclude our position rankings by looking at special teams. These can be some of the unsung heroes of teams or they can be major goats. Believe it or not, it's hard out there for special teams guys.

Here's how all 14 SEC special teams units rank heading into the 2013 season:

1. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return starting kicker Devon Bell, who hit 14 of his last 18 field goals last year, and punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 41.1 yards per kick last year and had a net of 39.9 yards. Jameon Lewis was Mississippi State's top return man last year, averaging 25.9 yards on his 20 kick returns. He also took one 100 yards for a touchdown. With Johnthan Banks gone, Lewis could move to punt returner, while LaDarius Perkins and Robert Johnson can handle kickoffs. Mississippi State also allowed just 6 yards on 13 punt returns (.46 yards per return), but did allow two touchdowns on kickoffs.

[+] EnlargeKyle Christy
AP Photo/John RaouxKyle Christ has averaged 44.0 yards per punt in his two seasons at Florida.
2. Florida: The Gators have to replace All-American kicker Caleb Sturgis, which won't be easy at all with nothing but inexperience there, but Florida has arguably the nation's best punter in Kyle Christy. He averaged 45.8 yards per kick, pinned 27 kicks inside the 20-yard line, blasted 25 punts that went 50-plus yards and ranked ninth nationally in net punting. Andre Debose proved to be one of the SEC's best return men again, averaging 28.3 yards on 18 kick returns and taking one back 100 yards for a score. Loucheiz Purifoy is a great cover guy and can help return kicks along with Marcus Roberson. Florida gave up 7.3 yards per punt return (one touchdown), just 18 yards on kickoffs and blocked six kicks last year.

3. Vanderbilt: Carey Spear knocked 20-of-24 field goals through last year, setting the school record for field goals made and kick scoring. He also didn't miss anything within 43 yards. Vandy must replace solid punter Richard Kent. Redshirt freshman Colby Cooke and walk-on Taylor Hudson competed at punter this spring, but freshman Tommy Openshaw could get a shot as well. Jonathan Krause returned 25 punts for 281 yards and became the first Commodore in 45 years to return two punts for touchdowns last year. Both Brian Kimbrow and Andre Hal averaged a little more than 22 yards per kick return. Vandy was solid defending kickoffs, but was second-to-last in the SEC in defending punts (10.7 yards per return and one touchdown).

4. Missouri: The Tigers return one of the nation's best return men in Marcus Murphy, who took three kickoffs and a punt to the house last fall. He averaged 24.1 yards per kick return and 13.9 per punt return. Andrew Baggett, who only missed two kicks under 40 yards last year, was a an SEC All-Freshman Team member last year, but has to be more consistent in 2013. Punter is up for grabs with Trey Barrow gone. Junior Christian Brinser is the favorite, but has just one career punt.

5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide has one of the league's most reliable punters in Cody Mandell, whose 44.3 yards per kick, pinned 19 inside the 20 and booted 14 50-plus yards. Christion Jones averaged 26.6 yards per kick return (eight returns) and had a touchdown last year, while returning 21 punts for 213 yards. He could get help from the shifty Dee Hart, who returns from an ACL injury. Short-yardage kicker Jeremy Shelley is gone, but long-distance man Cade Foster is back. He's shown improvement, but hit just 4-of-9 kicks last year and could share duties with redshirt freshman Adam Griffith. Coverage has to improve as well.

6. LSU: The Tigers lost kicker Drew Alleman and punter Brad Wing. Losing Wing sounds like the most significant, but the staff feels pretty confident in fellow Aussie Jamie Keehn, who averaged 43.7 yards on 12 punts last year. Odell Beckham Jr. racked up 320 yards and two touchdowns on punt returns and might get more chances on kickoffs. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is extremely fast and shifty, so expect him to get work in the return game, too. LSU was also one of the best kick/punt coverage teams in the SEC last year. Finding a suitable kicker won't be easy, though. Two walk-ons competed for the kicking job this spring. Junior James Hairston has a monster leg, but has been inconsistent on field goals.

7. Ole Miss: In hindsight, Ole Miss' coaches made a smart decision when they decided to redshirt Tyler Campbell. He was one of the country's best punters two years ago and has a career average of 44.6 yards per kick. In 2011, he downed 28 kicks inside the 20. Jaylen Walton became a dangerous returner for the Rebels last year, averaging 24.7 yards on 26 kick returns, and took one 100 yards for a score. The Rebels have to replace kicker Bryson Rose, but senior Andrew Ritter, who redshirted last year, should have the first crack at it. Though, he hasn't attempted a field goal in his career. Ole Miss also has to improve its kick coverage, as they gave up three total touchdowns on returns.

8. Auburn: The Tigers had some of the best numbers around when it came to defending kickoffs and punts. But that's because Auburn didn't kick off much and opponents rarely punted. So it's tough to say how good the Tigers are in those areas, but on five punt returns the Tigers allowed just 4 yards. Kicker Cody Parkey hit 11 of 14 kicks last year and didn't miss from within 46 yards. He's also hit 51 straight extra points. Punter Steven Clark averaged only 39.8 per kick, but his hang time forced only five returns last year. Onterio McCalebb is gone, finding a game-changer like him is up for grabs. Eyes are on Trovon Reed and Quan Bray.

9. Arkansas: Kicker Zach Hocker enters the season as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made (143), total points (287) and points per game (7.6). He'll have to improve on his 11-of-18 field-goal mark from last year. The Hogs were middle-of-the road when it came to defending returns and lost top return man Dennis Johnson. D'Arthur Cowan and Nate Holmes will handle return duties. Holmes ranked 10th in the SEC with a punt return average of 6.4 yards per return, while Cowan averaged 17.6 yards per kick return.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have one of the SEC's best returners in Trey Williams, who averaged 22.3 yards on 25 returns. Brandon Williams, who should be a big-play athlete for A&M, should also help out on kick returns. De'Vante Harris and Sabian Holmes should provide the Aggies with some solid return options on punts as well. A&M lost punter Ryan Epperson, but Drew Kaser shouldn't miss a beat as his replacement. Kicker Taylor Bertolet has to be much better, though. He hit just 13 of 22 field goals, missed seven extra points and was just 2-of-9 on field goals between 30 and 49 yards.

11. South Carolina: Bruce Ellington is a very good and very experienced kick returner. He averaged 22.6 yards per return last season and had a long of 50 yards. Now, replacing Ace Sanders at punt returner won't be easy, but Victor Hampton should be a viable option there. He's extremely fast and is a fast-twitch player, so he should be able to create plays in space. Speedy Damiere Byrd will get a chance on kickoffs and possesses the speed to hit a home run when he touches the ball. Punter Tyler Hull is back after averaging 39.4 per kick and pinning 12 inside the 20. Landon Ard left spring as the top placekicker, but has only handled kickoff duty during his career.

12. Tennessee: The Vols might have to rely on Michael Palardy to handle field goals, punts and kickoffs this fall. He hit 9 of 12 field goals last year, while Derrick Brodus hit 6-of-7. Only Palardy attempted a kick more than 40 yards last year and missed it. There will be competition at kicker, but Palardy should have the punter spot after averaging 43.1 yards per kick, pinning 16 inside the 20 and blasting 13 50-plus yards. With Cordarrelle Patterson gone, Devrin Young should take over kickoff and punt return duties. He was Tennessee's top punt returner last year.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats return one of the nation's best punters in Landon Foster, who averaged 42.9 yards per kick and had 22 kicks go for 50-plus yards last year. But Kentucky is still searching for a field goal kicker. Joe Mansour has been the kickoff guy for three years, but freshman Austin MacGinnis might be the guy the coaches are depending on the most when he gets in for fall camp. Kentucky has one of its top return guys coming back in Demarco Robinson, but lost DeMarcus Sweat this summer. Sweat averaged 20.5 yards per return.

14. Georgia: The Bulldogs continued the trend of having issues defending returns, ranking last in the SEC in punt coverage (11.1 yards per return and a touchdown) and eighth in kickoff coverage (20.2 yards per return). Another concern is kicker, where Marshall Morgan could miss at least one game this fall following an arrest on June 29 for boating under the influence. He's Georgia's only scholarship kicker and was shaky last year, hitting 8 of 14 field goals. Punter Collin Barber averaged 41.5 yards per punt and pinned 19 of his 60 kicks inside the 20. Malcolm Mitchell has all the talent to be a return star, but his ill-advised decision-making has turned him into a liability.

Ranking the SEC's punters

July, 23, 2012
7/23/12
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Now that we've looked at the SEC's top kickers, we're checking out the league's top punters.

Past rankings:
Here are our top 10 SEC punters:

1. Brad Wing, Soph., LSU: He was one of the league's most entertaining people last year, and he had the left leg to back it up. The first-team All-American averaged 44.4 yards per punt last season, with a long of 73 yards, and pinned 27 kicks inside his opponents' 20-yard line. He also had 20 punts of 50 or more yards.

2. Steven Clark, Jr., Auburn: The Ray Guy finalist and the SEC coaches All-SEC selection was one of the most accurate punters in the nation last fall. Not only did he average 40.8 yards per punt, he pinned 33 of his 72 kicks inside the 20. He had a long of 58 yards and sent 13 punts 50 yards or more.

3. Dylan Breeding, Sr., Arkansas: He returns as the SEC's top statistical punter after averaging 45.3 yards per punt last fall, with a long of 70 yards. Breeding landed 16 of his 53 punts inside the 20, and had 17 punts of 50 or more yards. He ranks fifth all-time at Arkansas in punts (166), punt yardage (6,971) and punt average (42.0).

4. Tyler Campbell, Sr. Ole Miss: He ranked fifth in the SEC last season, averaging 43.6 yards per punt with a long of 73. He also had 28 of his 72 kicks drop inside the 20, and had 16 punts go for 50 or more yards. Campbell is both powerful with his kicks and very accurate, making him a big weapon for the Rebels' defense.

5. Trey Barrow, Sr., Missouri: He was a second team All-Big 12 member last season, and ranked second in the league in punting average (44.8). Barrow, who also shared place-kicking duties, had a long of 74 yards last season, pinned 10 punts inside the 20, and had 18 punts of 50 or more yards.

6. Richard Kent, Sr., Vanderbilt: He averaged 42.5 yards per punt last season, with a long of 67. He also pinned 23 punts inside the 20 and had 18 punts of 50 or more yards. He had a 41.2-yard net punting average, and has put at least one punt inside the 2o in 24 of his 25 career games.

7. Baker Swedenburg, Jr., Mississippi State: He averaged 41.8 yards per punt, with a long of 58 last season. Nineteen of his kicks dropped within the 20, and he had 14 punts of 50 or more yards. The staff expects him to be even better after having a tremendous spring in Starkville this year.

8. Ryan Epperson, Sr., Texas A&M: He averaged 41.2 yards per punt last season, and pinned 19 inside the 20. He had a long of 68 yards, and sent 10 punts 50 or more yards. He directed four punts inside the 20 against Arkansas and Texas last season.

9. Cody Mandell, Jr., Alabama: He averaged just 39.3 yards per punt, but had a long of 52 yards, pinned 11 inside the 20, and had two punts of 50 yards or more. He put a season-high five punts inside the 20 against Florida last fall. The former walk-on enters his third year as a starter this fall.

10. Kyle Christy, Soph., Florida: He became Florida's starting punter during the last seven games of the season, but the spot is now all his. He still finished with 30 punts, and averaged 40.9 yards per kick along the way, with a long of 67 yards. Ten of his kicks were downed inside the 20. In his debut against Auburn, four of his punts were downed inside the Tigers' 20.

Top performer: Punter

May, 21, 2012
5/21/12
11:00
AM ET
Our look at the SEC's most productive returning players in 2012 continues with a look at the league's top returning punters.

Past producers:
The SEC returns seven of the top 10 punters from last season. We're going by average yardage per punt. Note: To qualify, a punter must have at least 2.5 punts per team's games played. The top punter returns, but he'll surely have some tough competition this fall.

Here's a look at the top returning punter by kick average:

Dylan Breeding, Arkansas: He averaged 45.3 yards per punt last fall, with a long of 70 yards. Breeding pinned 16 of his 53 punts inside opponents' 20-yard line and had 17 punts of 50 or more yards. Breeding has one of the best legs in the league, but is also pretty accurate. His leg became another defensive weapon for the Razorbacks and he returns as one of the school's top punters. With a new defensive coordinator and some missing defensive parts from last year, Breeding will be even more important for the Hogs when the offense falters.

The SEC returns six more of the top 10 punters:
  • Brad Wing, LSU: He averaged 44.4 yards per punt, with a long of 73 yards. He also pinned 27 kicks inside the 20-yard line and had 20 punts of 50 or more yards.
  • Tyler Campbell, Ole Miss: He averaged 43.6 yards per punt, with a long of 73. He also pinned 28 kicks inside the 2o and had 16 punts of 50 or more yards.
  • Richard Kent, Vanderbilt: He averaged 42.5 yards per punt, with a long of 67. He also pinned 23 kicks inside the 20 and had 18 punts of 50 or more yards.
  • Baker Swedenburg, Mississippi State: He averaged 41.8 yards per punt, with a long of 58. He also pinned 19 kicks inside the 20 and had 14 punts of 50 or more yards.
  • Steven Clark, Auburn: He averaged 40.8 yards per punt, with a long of 58 yards. He also pinned 33 kicks inside the 20. (Punts of 50 or more yards not available.)
  • Cody Mandell, Alabama: He averaged 39.3 yards per punt, with a long of 52 yards. He also pinned 11 kicks inside the 20 and had two punts of 50 or more yards.

Punting can be a little more predictable than place-kicking, so Breeding has a pretty good shot of retaining his crown. If Arkansas' offense didn't eat into his production last year there might not be concern of it happening again. Campbell should challenge Breeding because Ole Miss' offense is looking to install a new offense this fall, and that will take some time for players to get used to.

Obviously, Wing is someone who could push for the top average as well. He has a cannon for a leg and has pinpoint accuracy. He's also the most entertaining kicker out there.

Definitely keep an eye on Missouri's Trey Barrow. He was second in the Big 12 in punting average (44.8) and had a long of 74 yards last season. He also pinned 10 kicks inside the 20 and had 18 punts of 50 or more yards.

Florida's Kyle Christy averaged 40.9 yards per punt last year, but didn't meet the criteria of having at least 2.5 punts per his team's games. He also struggled to crack the starting lineup at first before starting the last seven games of the season. If he can start things off as the Gators' starter, he could push for the crown.

Texas A&M's Ryan Epperson could also challenge for the throne after he averaged 41.2 yards per punt and pinned 19 kicks inside the 20. He had a long of 68 yards and booted 10 punts for 50 or more yards.

Keep an eye on Joe Mansour and Jay Willmott at Kentucky, as they battle for the starting spot.
NEW ORLEANS -- Greetings from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome!

If you're looking for a confident bunch Monday night, look no further than Alabama's kickers. Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley took the field by storm. Along with punter Cody Mandell and snapper Caron Tinker, Alabama's specialists rushed out on the field, taunted some LSU players and were chest bumping all the way to their side of the field.

All the confidence this group lost in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Nov. 5, must have been found on the bus ride in tonight. These two are looking to make up for the awful showing they had the last time these two teams met. You know all those kicks have been running through their brains all week, so it's time to come out strong for these guys.

Both have been nailing kicks, so far, but there aren't any Tigers in their faces this time ...

There are also a few celebrities in the house. Cedric the Entertainer rode with me on the elevator up to his seat. No word from him on which team he's rooting for.

So far, it's hard to tell which side has more fans, but this place exploded when the Alabama kickers ran out onto the field. It got even louder when Alabama's skill players ran out onto the field. We'll see what it looks like come kickoff.

This place is going to be electric come kickoff. It helps that music from the movie "Inception" is blaring through the stadium loudspeakers.

Did you just get goosebumps? I know I did.

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